One of the joys of running a food incubator is to pick the entrepreneurs you like and go the extra mile for them on a whim. Today, I’m meeting Elena, a young Bulgarian mother who recently launched a prepared meals business for kids called Tiny Foodies . She and her husband prepare and deliver cold and hot foods for child care centers in the Boston area. As she is just signing up to work out of our commissary in Malden, Massachusetts, we start talking about who she is and what she wants to accomplish.
In her day job, Elena is a manager who analyzes medical claims data and tries to generate insights that reduce the cost of malpractice insurance for doctors. Her language is cold and left-brained. She describes the nutritional problems of young kids in America whose parents default to the pizza, peanut-butter-jelly sandwich and mac-and-cheese routine that will lead children to premature obesity and diabetes. I smell a Michelle Obama zealot who wants the kids pizza to be whole wheat and vegetable-laden, only to end up on the compost pile. I move to “let’s just collect the rent” mode.
There is something endearing about Elena, though. She has the modesty of her native Bulgaria and seeks advice. She has beautiful eyes that light up when she talks about kids and food. Not the calories of food, but the joy of food. Her particular passion is spices and she can wax lyrical about cumin. She rapidly moves from Morocco to India to Bulgaria, wondering why kids outside the US eat couscous and hummus, while American kids don’t. She wants to expand the palate of young American kids by getting them to try healthy, spicy foods at a young age, because this is what her mother did for her. She has a three year old boy of her own, and whether he likes it or not, he’s the food lab for the enterprise.
Elena’s problem is creating engagement with her customers and prospects. Her web site sells to individual parents (mostly mothers) using different child care centers, and she ends up delivering a small number of meals to widely scattered child care centers over the greater Boston area, which is clearly not economically viable. She also receives minimal feedback on what kids and parents think of the food. To explore new options, I encourage her to organize a live event with one of the child care centers she supplies, but she’s not sure she’s comfortable putting herself out in this fashion. I offer to be there for moral support, she rallies two of her young mother friends from Bulgaria to round up the protective squadron, and we agree to focus on one particular child care center in Cambridge. She suggests we conduct a session with kids, parents and teachers at pick-up time, while providing samples of the food.
As parents arrive to pick their kids on a cold and rainy Wednesday, we observe and ask a few questions on the fly. The child care center manager is our host and encourages parents and children to try the food. The dry nutritional agenda of American kids turns into a rich tapestry of kids, parents, teachers and child care center manager interacting to discover what foods children are prepared to eat at this particular moment.
Food itself matters, we discover. Kids are more adventurous than Elena had been led to believe from teachers report-outs (one of them in another child care center even suggested to a parent who had ordered from the Tiny Foodies menu that she send a PB& J sandwich as back-up, in case the kid did not like the food!). Many kids grab the bite-size food and convey enthusiasm without any encouragement. Lentils are a universal hit and solid foods are preferred to soups because soups are messy and require more teacher oversight. We even meet a two-year old girl who loves bok choy.
Even more important, though, is the human environment through which the food is offered. When parents eat the food, kids are much more willing to try it (we imagine that teachers could play the same role if we provided them with matching food). One Latin American mom silently stares her son down while holding the food in front of him for what appears to be five minutes. The kid finally gives up, reluctantly tries the food, asks for two more pieces, then wants to take the entire food bar home. We learn that mother’s toughness matters.
These mothers are all professional women who work in corporate offices near Kendall Square in Cambridge, and many of them were born outside the US. Two of them explain that they cook their kids’ meals on Sundays, then refrigerate or freeze them, but typically run out of food by Friday. They suggest that Elena talk to the child care center about making Friday a Tiny Foodies day for the whole center, equivalent to Pizza Day on Thursday, which would also help Elena concentrate her deliveries. As we approach 6 pm, the end of the pick-up window for parents, kids are so hungry they’ll try anything, and we run out of food. We learn that letting kids go a little hungry is an effective way to expand their palate, something that European, Asian and Latin American mothers have long known.
At some point, we’re joined by one of the teachers. She’s everything you want a teacher to be, gentle, compassionate, curious and kid-loving. Although other teachers reserve their meal for a break away from the hubbub of the kid’s lunch time, she likes to lunch with the kids because she can role-model eating, can compare her food to the kids’ food, and create improvised little pedagogical modules about the fact that three kids brought bananas, a Japanese kid brought sushi, or a Latin American kid brought vegetable tortillas. We start dreaming of inviting these high-powered professional mothers of the world and some teachers to co-create with us the future menu of Tiny Foodies. We also learn that teachers are responsible for providing snacks twice a day, and they are so busy that they often default to cheese and crackers because these items can be stored easily and require no additional labor, vs., say, avocados which need peeling. Perhaps snacks could also be part of Tiny Foodies’ offering at some point?
At that moment, I realize I am in the right place. Although I advise several governments around the world on various matters, I am convinced the problem of kids’ food and health will never be sold by policy and nutritional standards coming out of Washington, D.C. It will come from food entrepreneurs such as Elena experimenting with individual child care centers, their kids, parents and teachers, and solving the problem at that micro-level. Eventually, some of those entrepreneurs will be able to scale their business and one or two of them will go on to transform the kiddie food chain in America. (At that stage, the government will have a useful role to play).
Elena and her business have a long way to go before she can claim to change the food world. But for one moment on that cold and rainy evening in Cambridge, I catch her proud little smile observing the kids eating her food. She starts asking more questions from parents and teachers on what she should think of next. I can see her self-confidence grow. Watch it, world. Elena is spreading her wings.